A Tale of Two (Mexican) Cities

by Barbara Barton Sloane



Emerging from a cool plunge in the deep blue sea of Bandaras Bay, I settle back in our little motorboat which gently rocks side to side as it glides towards densely forested cliffs and an intensely blue grotto.  The sun is high overhead, its warmth lulling me into a dream-like state of sheer bliss. Bobbing in the bay, I revel in the fact that I’m incommunicado, far away from shore, unavailable, unreachable and suspended in an azure dream.


Bandaras Bay, on the west coast of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, is considered one of the most beautiful bays in the world, framed by the majestic Sierra Madre mountain range and with 40 miles of pristine coastline.  This city, while being home to a popular tourist destination (thank you Richard Burton), a plethora of cultural festivals and a thriving art scene, accomplishes the seeming impossible – it retains the character and traditions of the small fishing village it once was.


I came here last November to attend this town’s gourmet festival, and their 16th Annual Puerto Vallarta International Gourmet Food Festival takes place again this year from November 11 to the 21st.  It’s an eleven day whirlwind of cocktail and after-parties, cheese, wine and tequila tastings, cooking classes, concerts, conferences, chefs’ gala dinners and ends with awards ceremonies for the Chef’s Hall of Fame. The festival is the brainchild of Thierry Blouet, chef of the city’s renowned restaurant Café des Artistes, Heinz Reize of Hotel Krystal and Silvan Muller of Nestle. As the culinary scene here is superior to almost anywhere else in Mexico, their thought was to promote this city’s vibrant restaurants on a world stage and to enrich the profile of its gastronomic scene locally and abroad. Today, the festival attracts some of the top names in global gastronomy, as well as some of the world’s most promising rising stars. 


Besides eating, there’s much to keep one busy in Puerto Vallarta.  During my visit I did some deep sea fishing (no luck but thank goodness for Dramamine!), rode a lovely Palomino named Daisy along the beach, and  had the opportunity to do some whale watching. Actually, I prefer to call it whale searching as I saw nary a one.  I did see a blow spout far out in the distance.  Does that count?   We strolled through Vallarta’s colorful, historic downtown where we found the famous icons - The Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the famed Malecon Boardwalk.  This walk is lined with sculptures by well-known local and international artists, a veritable open-air gallery.  One of my favorite artworks was by an artist from Jalisco – Rafael Zamarripa, a sculpture of a boy riding a seahorse.  It is much loved by locals and has become the symbol of Puerto Vallarta.  Our walk ended at Los Arcos, a beautiful open-air amphitheatre overlooking the sea that hosts dance, music, theatre, and folkloric presentations.


Shall we do a little cooking right now? Let’s pair together this glorious destination by the sea with salt water, sugar sand, island spice and Mariachi music.  Pepper with the world’s finest chefs, preheat to 85 degrees and what do you have? The perfect recipe for a vacation.  You’ll leave with some wonderful and very tasty memories.


However, if a Mariachi band is not your idea of the perfect music to sway to, then check out this year’s Riviera Maya Jazz Festival!


Riviera Maya, located in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico, extends 81 miles along the breathtaking Yucatan Peninsula coastline from Puerto Morelos to Punta Allen.  It is minutes away from a host of tropical natural wonders, an emerald green jungle, the incomparable turquoise sea, countless lost cities of the ancient Mayan civilization and a unique system of underwater caves and caverns considered sacred in the Mayan culture. 


On my visit I stayed at Secrets Maroma Beach, an adults-only resort with an extra measure of romance and sensuality in a luxury setting. The property offers a program called Unlimited Luxury and everything is included from 24-hour concierge and room service, multiple gourmet restaurants and lounges serving premium drinks.  It’s located on 500 stunning acres on one of the most pristine beaches in Mexico.  While there, I think I tried out every one of their 12 pools, my fave being a huge shimmering infinity pool overlooking the ocean.


All That Jazz

The Riviera Maya Jazz Festival takes place this year from November 25 through November 28 and hosts some of the best national and international jazz artists. It’s held on Mamita’s Beach and great news: It’s all free!! The festival has an international following and by its musical quality, is one of the top 10 jazz festivals in the world. When I attended the festival, I found it lived up to its reputation. Here we were, sitting on an extraordinary beach, swaying to music by some of the world’s most important jazz musicians and, in the background, the calming sounds of the sea. The icing on the cake – sharing all of this with one very cool crowd. There were 10,000 people attending the concerts on Mamita’s Beach each evening and I reveled in the warmth and camaraderie of this group of like-minded jazz aficionados.  Even when the concert ended and thousands left the beach, it was done in a calm, peaceful way.  Good vibes.


Some of the well-known jazz musicians appearing at the festival this year include Aguamala, a group that got its start right nearby in Playa del Carmen in 2004.  They play a fine mix of influences, a base of jazz with touches of funk and rock, giving Aguamala its innovative sound.  Eugenia Leon makes an appearance this year. As she performs all over the world, Leon continues to enrich her repertoire including tango, bolero, Latin American music and the classics of the ranchero song.  Al DiMeola, one of the great representatives of jazz fusion, will light a fire with both his electric and acoustic guitar rhythms.  He says of his music: “What I’m doing now is just completely satisfying, like a phenomenal meal and a great glass of vintage wine.”  Something tells me this whole festival, start to finish, will be - using Al’s words - “completely satisfying!”


It’s Not All Jazz

You must not depart before you’ve done some of the fun activities that this destination offers.  There’s swimming by the only archaeological site located by the sea in Tulum.  You can snorkel in the largest natural aquarium in the world at Xel-Ha, you can explore the mystery of the Mayan caves in Aktun Chen and – for those that like to shop (of which you are legion), you can stroll along La Quinta Avenida in Playa del Carmen and enjoy the wide variety of shops, restaurants and bars.


If you attend either or both of these wonderful November festivals in Mexico, here’s my promise: you will eat, you will sway, and you will love Mexico!




Getting there

American Airlines flies to both Puerto Vallarta and Cancun/Riviera Maya.


Fares to Cancun/Riviera Maya, direct, starting at: $467

The flight, smooth and mellow, puts one in a Jazz Festival mood


Fares to Puerto Vallarta, (1 stop), starting at: $452

The airline, offering a breakfast of fluffy cheese omelets and warm, buttery biscuits was a gourmet fest in itself


Puerto Vallarta                                                                    Riviera Maya

NY Krystal Puerto Vallarta Hotel                    Secrets Maroma Beach Hotel & Resort                                                   


Restaurants                                                                           Activities

Vista Grill                                                                            Xel-Ha                                                    


The River Café                                                                     Aktun Chen                                               


Café des Artistes                                                                         Tulum                                         


Photos courtesy of Sloane Travel Photography